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Look on the dark side of life

The journalist Oliver Burkeman thinks we can only be happy when we learn to love failure. His new book, The Antidote, debunks the myth of positive thinking. Join Oliver on his quest to find happiness, health and wellbeing without resorting to the cult of optimism.

oliver burkemanAs a child, it's said, the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky used to torment his brother with the following annoying question: can you manage not to think about a polar bear for one whole minute? It can't be done. Try it for yourself: suddenly, all you can think of is polar bears. This is an all-too-common glitch of the human mind: you try really hard to do something -- but it's precisely because you try so hard that you fail. Could it be that the same basic problem applies to the quest for happiness? In our efforts to make ourselves happy, and to raise happy children, are we trying too hard? Is it the effort to feel positive that's making us miserable?

The pressure to "think positive" dominates the world of popular psychology. Parenting advice guides like "The Positive Parent" or "The Optimistic Child", are no exception. I wrote my new book to try to explore an alternative possibility: that we might be better off easing up on all this relentless optimism, and finding ways to embrace failure, uncertainty, imperfection and insecurity instead.

Nobody would argue that a certain amount of natural optimism is a bad thing. But there's increasing psychological evidence to suggest that the "cult of optimism", as one philosopher has called it, brings misery. Repeating self-help "affirmations" in the mirror each morning, one study found, makes people with low self-esteem feel worse. And "visualising success", as recommended in The Secret, can sometimes make it less likely that you'll achieve your goals.

But this focus on forced positivity, it turns out, is a rather recent historical phenomenon. Look further back through philosophy and spirituality, and you'll find what I took to calling "the negative path to happiness". The Greek and Roman Stoics, for example, argued that it was often wiser to visualise not the best-case scenario, but the worst. When you're worried, or your child is worried, about some stressful future event, the knee-jerk response is to insist, reassuringly, that "everything's going to work out OK". But, say the Stoics, it's often more use to realise that even if things didn't work out OK, they'd still be manageable. Anxiety tends to be bottomless and infinite. Imagining the worst-case scenario in detail puts some limits on it, replacing anxiety with calm.

Does positive thinking make us unhappy? Do you agree with Oliver? Post your comments

The newly popular practice of meditation, I would argue, belongs on the "negative path to happiness", too -- because it's about learning to let go of the urge to replace unhappy thoughts with happy ones. Meditation encourages you to view your thoughts and emotions like weather patterns that arise then pass away. This isn't necessarily easy: while researching the book, I spent a week on a silent meditation retreat, getting up at 6 every morning to meditate for 10 hours, and I'm still just getting the hang of it. But if you can find even a few minutes a day to meditate, you may find it vastly more beneficial than positive thinking. Seeing emotions as weather means you don't need to make yourself feel happy or motivated before you can get on with the things you need to do. Instead, you can coexist in a friendly way with those negative feelings -- and, meanwhile, get on with living.

Interested in health and wellbeing? Read guest blogs on depression and health byAnnie Lennox and Ruby Wax in our Special Features

The truth is that failure, worry and sadness are facts of life -- and a happiness strategy based on insisting they shouldn't exist is surely doomed. This is also why the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has argued that you should praise your children for the effort they put in, not for their achievements: that way, they'll learn to see the experience of failure as part of the process, instead of becoming perfectionists who dread it.

This year marks 60 years since The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, was first published. Perhaps now it's time to give the opposite approach a chance.

Last updated: 09-Apr-2013 at 4:58 PM